Chapter One

Bill’s First Birthday

MY NAME is Mark and this is my story. Actually, it’s really the story of me and my boyfriend, Bill. If you saw the man, you’d probably react the way I do every time he walks into the room—that is, you’d look up and drool in lust. The man, in addition to being a smart, sweet guy, is hotter than any single man has any right to be.

After all this time, whenever I see the man, with his head of jet-black hair, his tanned skin, his sleek athlete’s body, the twinkle in his eye, it just makes my heart pick up the pace and beat a little bit faster. He’s not a tall man, but neither am I. I see myself as a basic, average guy in most ways, including height. Bill is about the same height as me, maybe an inch or two taller.

Our story isn’t really complicated, I guess, but maybe I see it that way because it’s what I live every day. People have said that our story is unique and should be told, so that’s what I’m trying to do. The way I see it, our lives are pretty basic. I’m an undergraduate student at UCLA, and Bill would be too, if so many things hadn’t gone to hell in his life over the previous few months. He will be a student there again very soon, I hope, which will get his life back on track. This book will catch you up on everything that’s been happening in our lives lately.

Our lives have been a bit of a roller coaster for some time now. First we were getting by, then things were good, then they were great. And then they were not so good. And then life just sucked. And you’re probably thinking, well, kid, that’s life. And you’re wondering why you’re reading this book, since you live the same thing already and people read to escape the routine and the stress of their lives. In other words, to be entertained. At least that’s why I read. I hope my story will entertain you, at a minimum.

We’re both from New York State—upstate New York—up where there are as many cows as there are people. Upstate where it gets cold in the winter. I mean really, really cold. But those days are in the past. We now live in southern California, where the weather is better but life has had just as many challenges as in New York.

Back in New York, I lived a basic, ordinary life in a basic, ordinary family. My mission in life there was to keep my head down and not draw a lot of attention to myself. You see, I’m gay—have been since birth, or at least since my very first memories. I’ve always been gay. There was no question in my mind. No debate. It just was.

And I knew that most folks were not gay, which made me special. And as a special person, I knew that others could be very jealous of my specialness and that I had to keep it to myself. So I played a turtle in real life, keeping myself low to the ground, tucking myself inside my shell to keep safe from predators around that wanted to do me harm.

Bill, on the other hand, was completely the opposite. He’s similar to me in height and size, but in everything else he’s opposite. He’s athletic—he was a jock. He’s outgoing. He’s gregarious. He’s one of the guys. He was always popular. In fact, he was said by many to be the most popular guy in our high school.

When Bill came to live with us, we learned a lot about him. Some of what we learned was interesting, but not all of it was. When my mom and I first heard that Bill had never had a birthday party or even a birthday cake, it was a toss-up over which of us was more shocked. Neither of us could imagine a family in which a birthday wasn’t celebrated. I couldn’t remember any birthday in my life that hadn’t included a cake and presents, sometimes even a party and a special dinner out.

Even if the cake was homemade and tilted precariously to one side, even if it had big gaps in the frosting, even if there were cake crumbs in the frosting, everyone should at least have a cake for their birthdays. Even if birthday presents aren’t an option, for one reason or another, every birthday can and should have a birthday cake! That’s just all there is to it! If I had a rule book, that would be one of the rules I would write in that book.

So it didn’t take a lot of discussion for us to decide that we needed to fix this serious problem as quickly as possible. Once Bill came to live with us rather than just visit periodically, my mom and I immediately decided to plan a birthday party, at least among us. It would be, after all, Bill’s first birthday. I really didn’t have a clue when his actual birthday was.

Grabbing moments when we could, my mom and I put together an invitation list, and she started to work out a menu. She planned to do some food, but the biggest thing, we both agreed, was to have a huge, over-the-top birthday cake. She called a friend of hers who baked cakes and got her to work on the centerpiece of the festivities.

And so began the most unlikely party ever planned in the history of the world. I, super-geek, was hosting a surprise birthday party for a jock, to be attended by all of the jocks. Oh, this had vast potential for being uncomfortable. I was going to have to give this some serious thought, to see how best to play this event to do the least harm to Bill and his reputation.

From listening to Bill talk, I pretty much knew who his jock friends were, so I was able to hand-deliver the invitations for the surprise party. And since I was dealing with guys I didn’t know, I made a point of emphasizing the fact that this was a surprise party, and that none of them should say anything to Bill.

Somehow, everyone kept their mouth shut, so there was a good chance that Bill would actually be surprised. My mom had gotten space in the community room at the local fire station. The room could hold a couple hundred people, although we certainly didn’t anticipate having that many people attend.

On the day of the party, she and my dad were busy getting the place set up and decorated. On the off chance that Bill’s popularity was going to attract a bigger turnout than we could handle, on the invitation she had asked people to bring food of some sort. That way if a lot of people showed up, at least they would come bearing food.

On the actual day of the event, my job was simple—I was to keep Bill occupied and then to get him to the party precisely on schedule so that everyone could shout “Surprise!” The first part was no problem; I never had a hard time keeping Bill occupied. It was certainly not a burden for me to lie in bed, cuddling with him.

As arranged, the phone rang at three o’clock exactly. It was my mother telling me that it was time. My job was then to get Bill to accompany me downtown under the ruse of taking something to my mother. She had left two big boxes in the basement, so that I would have a viable ploy to use. I told him I needed to take the boxes to her right away and needed him to drive me.

I had been filled with nightmares of him suddenly being stubborn and not wanting to go out or to drive me downtown, but fortunately none of those came to pass. We got the boxes and drove them down to the fire station. Taking one of the boxes, I had Bill grab the other, and we walked them into the building. The community room was certainly not ADA-compliant. To get into the space you had to climb a long flight of stairs. I had Bill go first. Whatever she had packed into the boxes certainly was heavy, so we were both struggling a little under the weight of our burdens.

All was quiet in the room. The lights were off, and there was no sign of any activity. Apparently someone had been stationed at the windows to watch for our arrival and had cued the party guests to hide and keep their mouths shut. When Bill got to the top of the stairs first, I heard the room erupt into a huge chorus of “Surprise!” I still couldn’t see. Just from the sound of it there was a larger turnout than had been anticipated.

Bill stopped in shock at the top of the stairs, which prevented me from going any higher to see anything. His mouth hung open, and he was frozen in place. I was afraid that I was going to drop my heavy box, so I nudged him to move on up out of the way. We both dropped our boxes as my mom came forward and grabbed Bill by the arm and dragged him into the center of the room.

Now that I could see, I saw a huge crowd. Huge. Who were all of these people? I looked around and saw a lot of people that I recognized from school. All of the jocks were there en masse. These were his friends, so I hung back at the side of the room—this was Bill’s moment, this was his party. My mom led everyone in the singing of “Happy Birthday.” After singing, noisemakers went off all around the room, and some people threw confetti.

My parents had been busy. The room was decorated with streamers, tons of balloons, confetti. And most of the guests had party hats and noisemakers—just what a birthday party should have.

Finally, Bill was able to collect himself and said something. “But it’s not my birthday.”

“You’ve never had a birthday party or a birthday cake or any kind of celebration for your birthday, so this is your first birthday party. We have some catching up to do, so this first one is a little off-cycle.”

The crowd started congratulating Bill on his first birthday—that really was cute! A lot of people brought food as they were told, so there was a lot available for the attendees. As happens when you have a big potluck, there was some overlap and some duplication of food, but there were a lot of people who would eat it with no complaint.

My mom guided Bill around the room, showing him the food along with a table of presents! I hadn’t thought about that, but when you go to a birthday party, what do you do? Duh, you take a present. Why hadn’t I thought about that? Maybe because I had never been invited to any birthday parties. There was one table that was absolutely covered with presents. I had no idea what people would buy for Bill, so I was quite curious to see what those many packages contained.

My mom finally guided Bill to the centerpiece—a huge, and I mean huge, birthday cake. I had been to some weddings that had smaller cakes than this one. Whoever had made the cake had done an absolutely incredible job of decorating it. There were roses and flowers and scenes made of frosting that showed different sporting events that Bill had participated in over the years.

The look on his face was one of sheer astonishment at the cake, just as it had been upon entering the room a few minutes earlier. But I guess if you’ve never had a birthday party or even a birthday cake before, you were entitled to a little bit of awe at your first one of each. I continued to hang back and let Bill and my mom check everything out.

Since he was the birthday boy, she had him get some food first and then called for everyone else to help themselves if they wanted anything. I hung off to the side with my dad, enjoying the look of joy on Bill’s face whenever we caught a glimpse of him in the crowd of well-wishers. As anticipated, his jock buddies kept him surrounded and were having a boisterous good time.

After everyone had had time to go through the line, get some food, and then eat said food, Mom got Bill positioned for the next big event—cutting the cake. As the birthday boy, she had him cut the first piece—to loud applause by everyone—and then she and a couple of friends took over and efficiently cut and served pieces of cake for everyone who wanted some. That process took a little while before we were ready to move on to the final part of the party—the opening of presents. I had never seen so many presents together in one place before in my life, and it appeared that neither had Bill. Never. Not on a birthday. Not on a Christmas morning. Not in a movie. Never. Ever.

Bill simply looked. This was so far outside his comfort zone, he was simply frozen. My mom, being my mom, observed his behavior and was completely prepared for it. She put Bill into a chair at a table facing away from the presents but toward all of the partygoers. Since he was overwhelmed by the idea of so many presents, she selected one and placed it in front of him.

With a huge smile on her face, she instructed him, “Go ahead. Open it up, birthday boy! Look at the tag to see who it’s from, and then open it up and see what you got!”

Still a bit unsure, he checked the tag—I knew that she had handed him the present she and my dad had purchased for him. He started to gently and carefully pick at the paper. I don’t think the man had ever had a present before—of any sort! My God, what a life he must have had back at that house at the hand of his tyrant of a father.

Growing impatient, his jock friends started to chant, “Rip it! Rip it! Rip it!”

Finally Bill got a good hold on a piece of the wrapping paper and tore it. The look on his face was one of obvious delight. He tore some more, and then some more, and then the plain brown box was unwrapped. Finding the way to open the box, he did just that. And the look that came onto his face was one of disbelief.

“No way!”

“What is it?” someone in the crowd yelled. “Hold it up so we can see!”

Bill pulled out a new MacBook Air. The crowd applauded and hollered in approval.

“You can’t go to college without a computer,” my mom told him. “Happy Birthday, Bill!” she said as she gave him a hug. My mom had been more of a mom to him than his own had ever been able to be, and they both knew it.

“This is too much!” he complained.

“No it’s not! We love you and want you to do well and go far in this world. To do that you need some tools. This is one of them.”

They hugged again.

It was still obvious to me that a lot of people were confused by the whole idea of Bill living with us, especially since the two of us had never even seemed to be friendly. While people knew of his abusive father and the physical violence that he and his mother had suffered at his hands over the years, and they knew that his father was gone and that his mother was gone somewhere else, and that their farm had been auctioned off, no one ever spoke of any of this with Bill. There were some things that were just too uncomfortable to talk about with someone. So no one really knew why or how Bill and my mom and dad had bonded to such a degree that they would throw such a big party for him and buy him such an expensive gift. And they certainly didn’t know what to make of me, the geek who had become the best friend of a jock—their jock. This may have been the first time in school history that a geek and a jock had become friends. Not only friends, but best friends.

It occurred to me that I didn’t know if Bill had had anyone he considered a “best friend” before I came onto the scene. If he did, he never spoke of that person as such. If I had to bet, I would bet that Bill had never had friends over to his house, and he had never been allowed to go spend time at anyone else’s house either. And with no cell phone or computer, it is entirely possible that Bill, the most popular guy in the school in many ways, had never had a real friend before now.

While Bill had been up at the front of the room with my mom, I had sat off to the side with my dad. He saw that I was deep in thought over something. “You okay about this, Mark?”

Looking up at him, I nodded, smiled, and said, “More than okay. I was just thinking about what a hell he must have lived in for all those years. I still don’t understand why it happened….”

“And why he didn’t fight back?” my dad asked, as if he was reading my mind.

“Yes!”

“It’s a very difficult thing. When you’re trapped in a situation like Bill was in, it’s all you’ve ever known. The abuser has always been the alpha male in the house, in this case ruling with an iron fist—literally. The idea of disrupting the power pattern just isn’t conceivable as an option. When you’re in that situation, you come to not think of it as wrong, but just the way things are.”

“I guess I don’t really understand.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just rejoice in the fact that we got them out of that situation,” he said while pointing over at Bill, “and he’s in a better life now.”

“I do, Dad, I do.”

We looked back at the front of the room. My mom had taken a seat next to Bill and was writing down everything he was getting along with who had given it to him. She had another friend of hers helping to repack things for easy transport when this event was finished. I saw that someone else had taken over selecting presents for Bill. Oh, crap! I thought when I saw who it was. The damned cheerleader who had been such a waste of food while we unpacked the chocolate truck. Yep, the one that Bill said had been pursuing him so relentlessly.

The next package Bill opened, the first that she had selected for him, was apparently hers. Bill blushed when he saw what the box contained. The crowd shouted for him to hold it up and show what it was. He was too embarrassed to do that, but the girl who wanted him so desperately had no such hesitation. Reaching into the box she pulled out a skimpy pair of camouflage briefs followed by a bright-red jock strap. She said something we couldn’t hear and then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

My mother didn’t comment on the kiss but directed that another present should be brought over or we were going to be there all night. More presents appeared, which Bill opened. I noticed that she was handing him all of the presents brought by the jocks and the rest of her crowd. That was fine. I had several presents for Bill, only one of which was in the pile. The other presents I had for him would be presented later, at home, when he didn’t have an audience.

Bill got lots of gifts, some good, some ridiculous, some completely and utterly confusing. One box he opened contained a large bra. There was a look of complete confusion on Bill’s face when he studied the bra, and then we all heard one of his jock buddies shout out, “It’s a prescription—have it filled immediately upon arrival in California and take daily.”

The crowd roared with approval. Bill blushed in embarrassment.

At my Dad’s urging, I got up and started to take pictures. I got pictures of Bill opening presents. I got pictures of Bill and my mom. I got pictures of people in the crowd watching and cheering when Bill opened gifts. I backed off to the side of the room and got a lot of group shots that took in most of the room. I even got a few pictures of the gift table. My mom had taken pictures of the table earlier, before Bill and I had arrived, along with some shots of the cake.

Bill got a huge number of gift cards. He got gift cards for gas, for food, for plane tickets, for bookstores, for sports shops, for grocery stores, and for Starbucks. Lots of Starbucks cards. He was certainly going to be well supplied for getting his daily caffeine fix for quite some time.

Some of the packages simply contained cash, a five-dollar bill, some a ten-dollar bill, and a couple even a twenty-dollar bill. I guess those were the people who couldn’t get out to buy a gift card. But cash was still king and could be used anywhere. It paid rent, it bought groceries, it bought textbooks, it paid bus fare, and just about anything a student could need. Cash was good.

Another package, clearly from one of his jock buddies, contained boxes of condoms, and again someone shouted out that he should use them immediately upon arrival in California. Bill smirked at the guy in question. My mother, being my mother, simply said, “Safe sex is the best sex.”

The pile of presents was down to just a couple. I noticed that the bitch cheerleader had carefully ignored mine. I guess I shouldn’t have put who it was from in big bold letters on the card, but who could have predicted this situation? Bill got a pair of really nice running shoes. Since he was best known as a track star, those made perfect sense. Somehow, the person knew his shoe size and had bought exactly the size he needed. He got a couple of hats, one that actually looked pretty good on him.

And then finally she placed my present in front of him, clearly preferring not to do so, but not knowing any alternative. Bill read the gift card on the package, looked around for me, spotted me over with my dad, and smiled at me. He opened that package more carefully. The one present I had decided to give him here was a safe one. He was an artist, and an artist needed a digital camera to be able to take pictures, so I got him a camera. I couldn’t afford the best of the best, but I used my farm supply store money to buy him a compact digital camera that got good reviews and took pretty good pictures, despite its size.

“A camera!” Bill shouted. “I got a camera!” Clearly he was pleased or was at least acting like he was pleased.

There were no more presents, the food was mostly gone, and the cake was just a remnant of what it had been. Someone shouted, “Speech!” Someone else echoed that idea, and then lots of people were chanting it at Bill.

Bill stood and looked around the room while he tried to collect his thoughts. “I’m speechless. I’ve never had a birthday party before. I’ve never had a birthday cake before. I’ve never had a birthday present before. I will remember this day as long as I live. I can’t begin to tell you how much this means to me. To everyone who organized this event, to whoever made that incredible cake, to all of you who attended, to everyone who gave me presents, thank you. Thank you so much.”

The crowd applauded Bill, and then the party started to break up. One by one, people stopped to shake Bill’s hand, to punch him in the arm, to fist bump, or to just give him an old-fashioned hug before departing. People took their food containers with them, and the room emptied out.

My Dad and I started to clean up the paper plates, plastic silverware, and cups people had used during the event. We hauled out trash, including a ton of wrapping paper. We wiped down all of the tables and got them folded up and put away. My mom asked my dad to help load Bill’s presents and the remains of the cake into the car, and then she drove him home.

Dad and I folded up the chairs, put them away, took down all of the party decorations, and got everything packed up and thrown away or hauled back to the car. We swept the floor. When we were convinced that we were leaving the place in the same condition in which they had found it that morning, we called it quits and closed and locked up so we could head home too.

When we got to the house and got the things out of his car and into the garage, we went upstairs, where we found Bill and my mother huddled around something at the table. They were going over the list of who had given him what. Bill hugged my dad and then my mom and said, “Thanks, Mr. and Mrs. M.” He had taken to calling them “Mr. M” and “Mrs. M” rather than using their full names, and he had never been comfortable calling them by their first names.

I washed the crap off my hands from the cleanup work we had just finished and then went to change into something soft and fuzzy so that I could be more comfortable. My mom had Bill at the table starting the process of writing thank-you notes to everyone who had attended and brought him a present. My mom was a firm believer in the importance of a hand-written thank-you note. Not a thank-you e-mail. Not a thank-you instant message. Not a thank-you phone call. No, she believed that the hand-written thank-you card was a thing of beauty that was sadly dying. She believed that the frequency of people sending thank-you notes was now at the point that it was so rare it was appreciated more than anything else.

Bill was daunted by the prospect of the job ahead of him. The list of people and presents was overwhelming to him. He couldn’t believe that so many people had come out to a party—for him—and had brought presents and food. When it wasn’t even his birthday. He could not recall anyone ever doing something so kind and generous for him anytime in his life.

Together the two of them put together a prototype that he could use as the basis for all of the notes. And so he started the arduous task of handwriting all of the many dozens of thank-you notes. He got through a dozen before needing a bathroom break. At the same time he felt the birthday cake calling to him, demanding that he eat another piece. And who was he to argue with sugar and fat—with frosting on top.

Something with frosting always seemed to help me, so I could only imagine that it would give him the energy he needed to plow through another batch of thank-you notes. I left him alone, instead lying on the couch trying to read a book I needed to finish for English. It was tough going, so I needed to get through some more of it while I had the chance.

My mom decided that after the day she’d had she was too tired to cook, so she consented to something she hardly ever did—she allowed us to do carryout Chinese. Our town had few restaurants. The newest one was a Chinese place that only did carryout—no eat-in option. My dad gave me some money. I got everyone’s orders and then drove downtown to pick up our food. A half hour later when I got back, we all ate, and then left Bill to do some more of the seemingly never-ending thank-you notes.

By the time Bill had knocked out a couple dozen of the things, he was ready to throw them all across the room and stomp on them vigorously, so he quit for the night. My mom had warned him that it would take several days of active work to get through all of the many people who required thanks for their role in his party.

After we had eaten, I had returned to the sofa to continue my reading, determined to finish the damned book that day if it was the last thing I did. When he came in to join me on the sofa, he was in a cranky mood. In retrospect, I would have been cranky, too, if I had been forced to sit at the table and write “thank you” over and over and over again.

In a less than loving, thoughtful, caring manner, he shoved my feet aside from where I lay on the couch, happily reading my book for English class, and plopped himself down. “Hey!” I protested. “You could have asked.”

“And you could have taken up less couch space too.”

My mom and dad had gone to bed, so it was just the two of us. We watched a little TV, and Bill played around with his new laptop computer, appearing to be both excited and cautious at the same time. We didn’t talk much because he was tired, overwhelmed by the events of the day, and his mind was going in too many directions simultaneously.

Finally, I decided to call it a day. “I’m going to bed,” I announced, which got a simple grunt of acknowledgement from Bill. Shaking my head but holding my tongue, I left the room and got ready for bed. Given how the evening had played out, I decided to simply leave his other birthday presents on his side of the bed for him to find. Maybe that would put him in a better mood. As much as I wanted to be mad at him, I really couldn’t blame him. The poor guy must be tired from the day, and yet excited at being the center of attention and getting so many presents and so much love and respect from his friends so unexpectedly.

I placed the three carefully wrapped packages on his side of the bed, and then crawled under the covers to read for a few more minutes. The end of the dreadful book I had been reading was within sight, and I desperately wanted to finish the damned thing. Finally finishing the assignment, I tossed the book to the floor beside the bed, turned off the light, and lay down. I had no idea how long Bill was going to be up. Not long after, I was just starting to drift off to sleep when I heard Bill come into our shared room and undress for bed. I had left the light on his side of the bed turned on so that he would have some illumination and wouldn’t trip on anything coming into the room.

It was then that he must have spotted the presents. The sounds of movement he had been making until that point simply stopped. I was turned the wrong way, so I couldn’t just open my eyes and look. I had to roll over, which alerted him to the fact that I was awake. He stood at his side of the bed totally naked (and lovely), simply staring at the packages.

For a moment neither of us spoke. He finally broke the silence, pointed, and asked, “What are those?”

“They look like birthday presents for you,” I said simply.

“You already gave me a birthday present.”

“Well, there is no limit on the number of gifts a person can give someone they love.”

Bill was silent.

“And these were some that I wanted you to be able to open in private.”

“I can’t take anything else from you,” he protested. “You and your family have done so much for me and my mom. More than I can ever repay.”

“Bill. Shut up and open the presents.”

And surprisingly, that was all it took. He crawled up onto the bed, sat beside me, and looked at the three packages I had wrapped for him. Running his fingers over one of the packages, he looked at me and asked, “Which one should I open first?”

I pointed to one, which he proceeded to open very slowly and carefully. Inside he found two new good-quality sketchpads and one hardcover sketchbook. “They’re beautiful,” he said simply. “Thank you. Which one next?”

I pointed to another, and he opened that one equally carefully. Inside that one he found a large set of colored pencils that a sketch artist would use. “I’ve never had anything other than a basic number-two pencil that I stole from school. These are better than anything I ever thought I would have.”

“And you can use them anytime you want, anywhere you want. You no longer have to hide your drawing from everyone’s eyes.”

“So I guess this one is next,” he said, which was a stupid thing to say, since it was the last of the three packages. But I didn’t call him on that. He opened that package but wasn’t able to tell what the package contained. From all appearances it looked like a hard-sided, odd-shaped briefcase. Laying it on its side, he flipped the latch open and lifted the top. Arrayed inside were more than a hundred pastel sticks, every color of the rainbow.

“They’re beautiful,” he said, slowly and gently wiping his hand across their surface, as if to convince himself that they really existed.

“I didn’t know if you liked pastels or not, but the guy at the art supply store said it would make a nice gift. If you don’t like it, we can take it back and get something different. But I know how much you love to draw and how gifted an artist you are. Your drawings are so vivid, so real.”

He leaned over and stopped any further conversation by simply kissing me. He stretched out beside me on the bed and continued to kiss me. He laid his head on my chest and said, “I love you.”

“Good thing, too. No one else has ever applied for the job.”

He chuckled. “I want nothing more than to jump your bones right now, but I’m so tired.” He moved his newest presents to the desk and then crawled under the covers with me, wrapping me in his arms. We were both exhausted and fell asleep in almost no time at all.